NASCAR

A changing of the Guard

LOOKING FOR A RIDE
Juan Pablo Montoya, released from EGR.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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I want to congratulate Kyle Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s team for a great run Sunday at Watkins Glen. He sure held a pretty wheel there late in the race with Brad Keselowski breathing down his neck. You also have to give a tip of the hat to Brad for showing restraint Sunday.

Sure, he could have easily punted Kyle there late in the race but he might have also taken himself out at the same time. That would have been double-dumb. Brad, however, was thinking about the big picture and it dictated he needed the points more than he needed to start another firestorm by dumping the leader.

Honestly he probably had a flashback to one year ago when he got into Kyle and wrecked him. I think Brad’s post-race interview said a lot. When asked why he didn’t lay the bumper to Kyle, Brad said he just didn’t need any new drama right now. He’s right because he doesn’t. He’s learned the hard way this year that it’s not being the defending champion with that big ol’ bulls-eye on your back.

So Kyle did an amazing job of getting his third win of the season at a place he’s been knocked out of winning at the last couple years. While it didn’t clinch him a spot in the Chase, that third win all but guarantees it and for a driver that missed the Chase last year, it has to be a really great feeling knowing what that third win means in the general scheme of things.

One guy that didn’t have that great of a run a Watkins Glen was Jimmie Johnson, our points leader. But you know what, it was good enough to lock Jimmie into the Chase. I think this is something like the earliest a driver has ever clinched a Chase spot. So he and crew chief Chad Knaus are just cruising along.

Unfortunately for some, it’s anything but cruising time right now. There’s change in the wind right now. Some of the dominoes are starting to fall into place. For instance, Michael Waltrip Racing announced Monday that Brian Vickers has signed a deal with Aaron’s for the next couple years to run the No. 55 car all year long. No more one crew chief, one team but three-driver rotation. So I am excited about that for Brian.

Max Papis filled in for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen and brought the No. 14 car home in 15th spot after starting back in 29th. It was announced that young Austin Dillon will drive the car this weekend at Michigan. If that wasn’t enough breaking news, then it was announced that Juan Pablo Montoya would not be returning to the No. 42 car next year.

So we have Mark Martin who still maintains he wants to race part time that doesn’t have a ride. We still have Ryan Newman leaving Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the season and he doesn’t have a ride. Now here’s Juan Pablo’s announcement and no one seems to know where he will land next year.

Here’s what’s bringing this on. It’s all these kids, these really young drivers waiting in the wings for their chance to make their mark in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. I’ve said this many times before but our sport goes through this upheaval and changing of the guard every 10 to 15 years. I really think we are seeing the start of another one.

In today’s NASCAR, both the sponsors and more so the owners don’t have the luxury anymore of waiting, waiting and waiting for the performance to change. When there isn’t an over-abundance of sponsors out there, the ones who aren’t getting their dollars worth have greener pastures to look forward to.

Kyle Larson is one of those young drivers that everyone believes is ready to move up to the Cup circuit. He’s under contract to Chip Ganassi, so is he the odds-on favorite to take over the No. 42 car? You’ve got Richard Childress and his two grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon.

We know there is one seat open at Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season as Kevin Harvick moves over to replace Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing. Does Austin get that seat? If Austin does take over the No. 29 car, then what about Ty? Does that put a veteran like Jeff Burton on the bubble?

One of my favorite sayings is “Nothing is going to change until something changes.” I think that’s what we are seeing out of some of these owners. Same ol’ same ol’ just doesn’t cut it anymore and they are looking to bring in some fresh blood with these young drivers to shake things up.

You have Chase Elliott, Awesome Bill’s son under contract at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s making quite a name for himself and showing everyone the old cliché is true that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The question then becomes, with the NASCAR mandated cap of each owner only allowed a maximum of four teams, what will they do with Chase?

Drivers retiring or being released from a ride is nothing new in our sport. It’s just a fact of life. I hate this saying, but it is true – “it’s not personal, it’s business.” It’s business because there are millions of sponsorship dollars invested and sponsors what their car upfront, they want it on TV for the exposure, they want to be in Victory Lane, they want to make the Chase and they obviously want to win the Chase.

It’s all about timing and I think we are seeing it just beginning. I think there will be more shakeups before the start of the 2014 season. It started with Harvick and Newman. Now, as I mentioned earlier we have the Vickers announcement and now the Montoya announcement. Who knows what the next announcement will be?

Speaking of the Chase, we have three drivers currently who are in the Chase but still haven’t gotten a win this season with four races to go. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: If you limp into the Chase you’ll limp out of the Chase. You can’t come into the Chase with no wins and not running that great and expect that your program will magically come to life and you’ll win the championship.

The only person that has ever done that was Tony Stewart when he came into the 2011 Chase with no wins, yet won five our of the 10 Chase races and won the championship from Carl Edwards via a tie-breaker, which, oh by the way, was based on wins.

In looking at the Chase field as it sits today, I honestly only see three guys who I believe have a legitimate shot at the title. I’m talking about Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. I actually see it right now, based on performance, that it is Jimmie’s championship to lose. Is this the year however that Kyle Busch finally gets over the hump and gets his first championship? Can Matt Kenseth do what has to easily be thought of as the impossible and that’s win a second championship in the very first year with a new team, new car and new manufacturer?

I think this weekend at Michigan will be a real good indicator of where Matt and his program are at. Toyota is saying this will be the weekend where all the engines will be back to max power after they throttled them back some following a rash of engine failures earlier this year.

I just don’t see anyone at this point in time stepping up to challenge those three drivers for the championship. It’s not impossible. Obviously Tony showed us that in 2011 but that’s the exception more so than the rule.

POLL

  • Austin Dillon replaces Stewart at Michigan. What was your choice?
    • Austin was a good pick
    • Brian Vickers would have made sense
    • Should have given Ty Dillon a shot
    • Kyle Larson would have been awesome
    • Regan Smith wouldn’t have disappointed

I think our race fans are supportive of a change. Shaking things up is never a bad thing. Look what the truck race at Eldora did. It got people excited and got people speculating about maybe the Nationwide and the Sprint Cup Series should add a dirt event. The Genration-6 car has gone a long way this season to get folks excited and rightfully so. I still maintain we have yet to see the full potential of this new race car.

Think about the fact that it wasn’t that long ago that people were saying that road courses needed to be eliminated all together. Because of some awesome road course racing, now people are saying not only do we need to do more, but we need to add a road course to the Chase.

Along those lines, one of the biggest areas I think we need change in is the race schedule. I think we are at the point where NASCAR really needs to sit down, take a hard look at the schedule and do something new, different and exciting. We’ve been doing the same thing over and over, year after year and that’s the type of things people are tired of. I think people are ready for a change that’s new, exciting and different. Just like I was talking about performance earlier – same ol’ same ol’ when it comes to the schedule just doesn’t work anymore.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we need to shake the tree every now and then and see what falls out. I think and I hope NASCAR is on the verge of doing that. They say they are also making some internal changes, so that’s a storyline we’ll all need to follow.

One change I am really excited about happens this weekend when FOX Sports 1 rolls out. It’s like anything else – give it some time and I think you will be amazed at the potential. The other big change comes in 2015 and naturally I am talking about the return to only two networks covering the NASCAR Sprint Cup series – FOX Sports in the first half of the season and NBC in the second half.

So there is a lot going on right now in addition to only four races until the 2013 Chase starts. I am interested to see what other major announcements come out between now and the end of the season. There’s a lot of speculation in the wind right now so I’ll be interested to see what becomes reality versus what was nothing more than talk.

I’m off to the Irish Hills. FOX has asked me to be part of the launch of FOX Sports 1 on Saturday at Michigan and I jumped at the chance. It’s just another one of those changes I mentioned earlier. It’s not everyday that you get to be part of a launch of a whole new network and I am blessed to have the opportunity.
 

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Max Papis, Brad Keselowski

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